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Caps can tie Islanders for first place in Metro tonight

Caps can tie Islanders for first place in Metro tonight

ARLINGTON – The last time the Capitals played the New York Islanders and former coach Barry Trotz, first place was on the line in the Metropolitan Division.

That game on Jan. 18 ended in a 2-0 home loss and Washington hasn’t been tied for first place since. There is an opportunity tonight though when the Capitals visit the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington Plus). They can tie New York in points with a regulation victory.

The two teams have split their two games this season. Josh Bailey and Cal Clutterbuck scored for New York in the third period in that Jan. 18 win and the Capitals managed just 19 shots on goal. That loss came in the midst of a seven-game losing streak for Washington. The Capitals are 9-4-1 since that streak ended, however. This pivotal game could decide the division title. They do play one more time in the regular-season finale at Capital One Arena on April 6. 

Glass Case of Emotion

Forgive Islanders fans if they’re a little riled up. Last night marked the return of former captain John Tavares, who left the team last summer to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. His first game back in New York against the Islanders featured jerseys burned in effigy, derisive chants and a 6-1 win. Expect that emotion to carry over into a game against the Capitals. 

New York is playing the rest of its home games this year at revamped Nassau Coliseum and not at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which has been their primary home since 2015. The Capitals played the last meaningful games at Nassau before this season during a 2015 Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Islanders that they eventually won in seven games. The fans in New York haven’t forgotten. 

Goaltending

Doesn’t matter who the Islanders play in goal. Both Robin Lehner and Thomas Griess have been outstanding all season. Lehner leads the NHL with a .931 save percentage and Griess is third at .928. They are a rare true tandem with 34 starts for Lehner, who beat Toronto on Thursday, and Griess getting 29. He had the shutout Jan. 18 in Washington. Meanwhile, Braden Holtby has received steadier play in front of him since the All-Star break and stopped 303 of 330 shots (.918 save percentage, 2.72 goals-against average) for Washington. 

No changes

The Capitals have won two games in a row so no reason to switch things up for now. Trade deadline acquisitions Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen stay in the lineup. Jensen plays with Brooks Orpik on the third pair. Hagelin, the left wing on the fourth line, has yet to make an offensive impact yet. Washington has scored 13 goals in its past two games, but this will be a far harder test than games against Ottawa and the New York Rangers, who are out of playoff contention. The third line has been especially good lately with Brett Connolly (five points) and Andre Burakovsky (three-game point streak) helping center Lars Eller (one goal, two assists). 

Milestones

It will take a big night, but Alex Ovechkin is just four points from 1,200 for his career. That would tie former Capitals forward Dino Ciccarelli. Ovechkin has 44 goals and 30 assists (74 points) and at age 33, with 18 games to go, has a legitimate chance at his first 90-point season since 2009-10.  

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Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

When it comes to free agency and projecting which pending free agents a team may try to re-sign, there is a fair amount of guesswork involved. For most of the year, we don't actually know perhaps the most crucial piece of information: the salary cap. The salary cap is not set until after a season is over so while we have projections of what the cap may be, we don't actually know. The one assumption that pretty much everyone makes when projecting the cap is that it will go up. Business is good for professional sports, the value of teams continues to rise as does hockey-related revenue...and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

The revenue the league stands to lose due to the pause to the season, the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and a postseason without any fan attendance brought the NHL and NHL Players' Association together to negotiate how to navigate the difficult financial times ahead. As a result, an agreement was reached Monday on a memorandum of understanding for the collective bargaining agreement. As part of the negotiations, both sides reportedly agreed to a flat salary cap for the next two seasons meaning the current ceiling of $81.5 million will remain the ceiling.

That's bad news for the Capitals.

But why? If the Caps can afford to fit their team under the $81.5 million salary cap now, why is it such an issue that the cap will remain at $81.5 million next season?

As I mentioned above, everyone operates under the assumption that the salary cap will continue to rise, including general managers. That's not optimism or poor planning. Really it takes something catastrophic to halt that rise, like a lockout/strike or...you know, like a global pandemic. The point is, every team when projecting out its rosters for next year and beyond, did so with the assumption that the salary cap would rise. Now that it's not, that affects the projections for every team.

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For the Caps, yes, they were able to fit their roster under the $81.5 million cap for this season, but just barely. For much of the season, the team carried only six defensemen, the bare minimum, on the roster. That means if a player got sick or injured the day of the game, the team would have essentially had to play a full game with only five defensemen. It took a lot of cap gymnastics for general manager Brian MacLellan to fit his roster under the cap and it was something that was constantly tweaked all year. Will he be able to do it again next year? Not with the current roster.

The biggest issue for Washington is a number of long-term deals that will now come back to bite them. The Caps have for several years now been a "cap team," meaning they have spent right up to the salary cap ceiling. This is typical for teams looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. If you feel you are a legitimate contender, you try to make every dollar count towards building a championship roster. Without much room under the cap to work with, however, MacLellan had to offer free agents something else in order to entice players to sign. As a result, the team has given out several deals to players of four years or more. The benefit to this is, not only can you continue bidding on free agents without much money to spend, but even if a player does not live up to his cap hit, that cap hit gets lower every year in terms of percentage with a rising salary cap.

In 2017, T.J. Oshie was a free agent. The Caps did not have the money under the cap to re-sign him so instead offered him an eight-year deal. There is no question Oshie left money on the table in terms of a yearly salary, but he got more years. Will he be worth a $5.75 million cap hit when he's 38 and on the last year of his contract? Probably not by today's standards when his cap hit alone takes a little over 7-percent of the team's cap space. With a rising cap, however, that percentage would have gone down each year. Now it won't, at least not as much as MacLellan had anticipated.

For a team that has pushed right up against the cap ceiling the last few years, one of the few sources of relief it could find was the yearly increase to the cap. Now it won't have that for the next two years.

RELATED: NHL, NHLPA ADD 4 YEARS TO CURRENT CBA  

Washington has 11 players with at least three years on their current contracts after the 2019-20 season. Those are players whose cap hits by percentage will remain exactly the same next season. With a salary cap of $81.5 million, the Caps have 11 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract with a little less than $10.4 million of cap space remaining.  That's $10.4 million to use on at least two forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. That's not a lot.

There are also restricted free agents like Jonas Siegenthaler and Travis Boyd with cap hits of $714,166 and $800,000, respectively. Both players will be due raises. It's hard to imagine the team walking away from Siegenthaler, but even if they wanted to with Boyd, they would still have to replace him with another player who costs money. Plus, Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and, most importantly, Braden Holtby will be unrestricted free agents.

Free agency was going to be difficult for Washington to manage yet again in 2020 regardless of how much the cap was going to rise. Now with a flat cap, the team's practice of handing out long-term contracts is really going to come back to bite them and force some difficult decisions. The team has very little money to pay players more than what they're making now. Does this ensure the end of Holtby's time in Washington? Does the team wait on a long-term extension for Ovechkin to get a better idea of where the salary cap may be in a few years? Can the team afford to keep any of its UFAs? Does the team leave Oshie exposed to Seattle in the expansion draft?

At this point, these are all questions MacLellan now has to consider.

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NHL Players' Association Executive Board approves return-to-ice plan as league takes one step closer to return

NHL Players' Association Executive Board approves return-to-ice plan as league takes one step closer to return

The NHL took another step toward a return to the ice late on Tuesday night when the Executive Board of the NHL Players’ Association approved the tentative agreement between the league and its union. 

There are still two steps to go. The NHLPA Executive Board now opens up the memorandum of understanding to its full membership. Every player will have a vote. The NHL Board of Governors also must approve the MOU. 

If that happens? We will have hockey soon – barring the coronavirus pandemic wrecking things as it has for months. 

Players will report to their team facilities by July 13 for training camps as the league attempts to execute its return-to-play plan. Twenty-four teams will travel to the two hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton, on July 26 for round-robin games, qualifying playoff games and the full 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs. 

There is no set date for when owners must approve the memorandum, but players are expected to be finished their vote by next Monday in time for training camps.

RELATED: NHL, NHLPA ADD 4 YEARS TO CURRENT CBA  

The Capitals are set to play the Bruins, Flyers and Lightning in a round-robin tournament for seeding in the Eastern Conference. The defending champion Blues, Oilers, Avalanche and Golden Knights will do the same in the Western Conference. 

The 16 other teams that will continue play have a best-of-five preliminary round to whittle the Stanley Cup field to its usual 16 teams playing best-of-seven series. 
The agreement also extends the current Collective Bargaining Agreement until at least 2026, buying labor peace the NHL has rarely found with its players. It also opens the door to Winter Olympics participation in Beijing (2022) and Milan (2026). 

Now, we wait for the next two crucial votes and hockey will be in sight. 

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